On Gal Sofer’s “‘And You Should Also Adjure in Arabic’: Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Formulas in the Solomonic Corpus”

I’ve often heard concerns from my readers about the rising price of academic publishing – especially with books that cost hundreds of dollars and might only include a couple chapters of interest. I might start covering these a bit more, especially if I run into an article as interesting as Gal Sofer’s article in the book Esoteric Transfers and Constructions from Springer.

The title of this article might cause it to be overlooked. I don’t want to say that it’s inaccurate, because Sofer’s chapter does indeed cover how various religious traditions incorporated and modified incantations from various faiths, especially those traveling from Arabic and Hebrew manuscripts into Greek and Latin translations. Sofer makes two arguments I want to emphasize, one regarding voces magicae and the other on the historical significance of Liber Bileth. (Read more on the latter at Mihai’s blog here.)

The voces magicae are the words of power often found in magical incantations, often differing wildly from the language dealing in the rest of the text. Our modern perspective on these, likely influenced by our views on medieval works and the Chaldean Oracle‘s admonition not to change the “barbarous words of evocation,” is that these are often words from other languages that have been corrupted over time. This is often true – but Sofer suggests it is not always the case:

Whereas the ceremonial acts in such works are somewhat stable, the verbal elements, that is, the adjurations and onomastics, are not. The multilingualism and the unstable nature of the nomina magica in such texts often served as catalysts for a Christian acculturation. (p. 61)

Thus, not only might a scribe translating a document from Hebrew or Arabic might not simply copy over the incantations and magical words, but in fact substitute their own. With this in mind, simply looking at the voces magicae or even the incantations might not be a reliable indicator of the origin of a ritual. The actions taken, ingredients, might give us better grounds for comparison.

What of Liber Bileth? Previously, we knew that this fifteenth-century Latin text was later translated into Hebrew, yielding the text translated at Mihai’s blog. Sofer suggests that this work derives from an original Hebrew work, the Sefer Ha-Qvizah, with fragmentary copies in the Cairo Genizah dating back to the eleventh century. Further, this work appears to have been the source of other incantations found in Dee’s Book of Soyga, the Discoverie of Witchcraft, and the Hygromanteia, the Greek precursor of the Key of Solomon. The tendency has been to favor Greek origins for the book over any Hebrew ties, but this might be changing. (That doesn’t make it any more likely the book was actually written by Solomon, of course.)

(As a side note, the spirit in Sefer Ha-Qvizah is named Bilar, which means that the “Bileth-Lilith” equation inspired by Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Clm 849, published as Forbidden Rites, might be more of a coincidence than a historical link.)

I think all of this is definitely worth of more discussion. Sofer only provides a few sample passages, which makes it difficult to estimate just how far these correspondences go and to give them a solid critique. I hope this does occur over the next few years. In the meantime, it gives grimoire aficionados a great deal to think about.

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Published in: on November 13, 2021 at 1:03 pm  Leave a Comment  

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